The announcer of the Metro Centre said: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Mark Farrell!”
Most comics have a story of gig that went wrong. This is mine.
It was between the second and third periods of a Nova Scotia Oilers game (then the AHL affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers), in a time when you didn’t have to name a bank when you went to see a hockey game.
I was just about to do a stand up-set during the second intermission for the 5,000 or so (capacity is close to 10,000) who were there. I was following a guy who had tried to put a puck through a small slot in a plywood cut-out in front of the net from centre ice. After my introduction someone rinkside with me handed me a wireless microphone (the first one I ever used—this was 1988 after all) and said: “I’m pretty sure this works.”
I replied: “I’ll let you know.” The microphone did in fact work, but I don’t think it really made a difference.
I then gingerly slid, in what I thought were stylish Geronimos (shoes, not underwear) out to the middle of the ice, where a small piece of red carpet had been placed for me, to desultory applause and almost active apathy.
I was wearing some Levi’s 501s, bleached, I think, to be lighter, or maybe I bought them that way because I thought they paired well with my Geronimos.
I had on my one sportsjacket, and a tie I had borrowed from Harry Doupe. A tie that I would lose somehow after the gig was done and I was back in my seat in the stands, hoping to God no one recognized me as the guy who had metaphorically soiled himself at centre ice.
Harry was (and is) a comedian who was working the local Halifax comedy club that week and had been in the room when Paul, the manager of the club told me about the gig and offered it to me.
I was a very inexperienced amateur comic, just 21 years old. Paul on the other hand had been a comic in the early days of stand-up in Canada. He had a booming laugh and didn’t really care if the audience laughed at or with you, or didn’t laugh at all.
Paul always said, re: audience members, “What do I care what those crystal dolly tampons think?” That’s a really hard phrase to forget and no, I don’t know what it means.
The gig paid $50 so I declined but Harry convinced me I should do it because it would make a good story. I was young enough to think that was a good reason.
I had been doing amateur nights at the club for a few years. The amateur nights were on Thursday nights, after the regular show and headliner. Once early in my career I was brought to the stage with this intro: “How about a hand for your headliner, Norm MacDonald! And now, it’s amateur night, please welcome, Mark Farrell.” Norm had destroyed that night, and believe it or not, I wasn’t able to follow him.
The professional comics who came through Halifax on tour were mostly supportive, especially the MCs. I found out later that they got an extra $100 to host the amateur night. I was often the only one who showed up, so they were pleased to see me. Some called me “Mr. C-note”
I had developed a bit of an act by the time this Oilers gig came about though it reeked of hackiness and lazy, unoriginal topics.
A few samples of the bits in my repertoire: my “political joke” was how Free Trade with the U.S., (a big news story at the time) should be Newfoundland for Florida.
I picked apart the lyrics of the song Piano Man, paying attention to the phrase “making love to his tonic and gin.” My big closer was a riff on a popular anti-cocaine commercial of the day, featuring Sonny the bird from the Cocoa Puffs cereal and my clever spin on it was that Sonny was in fact addicted to Cocoa Puffs. The big laugh at the end: me, imitating Sonny’s voice, saying “I lost my wife, I lost my kids. Because I’m CUCKOO for Cocoa Puffs.”
And those were my good ones.
And now the members of the crowd of this Oilers hockey game were seeing my act and if the random airhorns and cowbells were any indication, they weren’t buying it.
After about a minute into my performance, the Zamboni started.
The driver of the Zamboni didn’t care that I was an inexperienced comic in a gig in which I had no hope. I tried to catch his eye, looking for sympathy or a connection. He wouldn’t meet my gaze. I was an obstacle, a particularly nasty patch of ice that had to be smoothed out so the game could continue. He wasn’t going to let any pity for Hacky Hackerson, the comic dying on the ice, prevent him from doing his job.
Or perhaps he was a connoisseur of comedy and knew that I should be removed from the timeline so as to protect the future of the multiverse.
Either way, he was in a rush. He zoomed by me. And then again. Closer and closer. It doesn’t seem that fast when you’re in the stands, but when you’re on the ice, bombing, a zamboni seems very quick. And more dangerous. Rhinoceros-like.
As he got nearer, I thought of the Edgar Allan Poe story “The Pit and the Pendulum,” which is about a pit and ah, um, a pendulum. (I like descriptive titles. No one ever had to ask: so, what’s “Hobo with a Shotgun” about?). The pendulum in the story swings back and forth, closer and closer to the main character, just like the zamboni zeroing in on me.
I was running out of room. And jokes. I panicked.
I said to the crowd: “Hey did you guys hear about the new of Wayne Gretzky wallpaper? It’s great, but it won’t go into corners.”
I kind of got a laugh. My only one. I left as quick as someone not on skates and very slippery ice and newly smoothed ice, can leave.
Here’s the problem. I stole that joke. A big no-no in comedy circles; at least it was then. The Wallpaper joke was a Jim McAleese bit. Jim is a great stand-up, a wonderful performer, and a fantastic joke-writer. One of my favourites of Jim’s is his description of Canadian showbiz and a Canadian comic’s place in it: you have to learn how to crawl before you can learn how to limp.
In a moment of desperation, with a zamboni bearing down, or rhinocerosing down on me, I stole his Gretzky joke. I just hoped it wouldn’t get back to him.
The next time I saw Paul I told him how that I had bombed spectacularly at the gig.
He shrugged. “You get the 50 bucks anyway. And who cares what those crystal dolly tampons think?”
A year or so later, I was again performing at the Halifax comedy club, but now, instead of being a bad amateur comic from Halifax, I was a bad touring comic from Toronto. Paul was no longer the manager, and I was opening for of all people, Jim McAleese.
Jim and I grabbed some lunch one afternoon and walking through downtown Halifax, we ran into J.C. Douglas, who at the time was hosting the morning show on Q104. He went to the club once in a while and had always been nice to me when I was starting out.
He was glad to hear I was making a go of it in Toronto. And then, in front of Jim, he said: “ I saw you last year, at the Metro Centre. Loved the Gretzky wallpaper joke.”
Jim was good about it. I explained the situation. He laughed and let me off the hook. And I swore then I would never steal a joke, especially from Jim, no matter how desperate I was.
I’m not sure if Harry was right, if doing this gig at the Metro Centre gave me a better story. Thanks If you made it this far, but the conclusion seems to be me to be a little flat. Oh well, it will have to just be a small vignette of my travels through Canadian show business, a business I guess you could describe as a place where you have to learn how to crawl before you can learn how to limp.
(Sorry again, Jim!)